How Belgium’s Eden Proved to be a Real Hazard This World Cup

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How Belgium’s Eden Proved to be a Real Hazard This World Cup

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

My eyes dilated over the Kazan Arena pitch. The brief was to follow Neymar, to race the pupils at the rectangular field as he trotted past defenders. But it was proving difficult. For Eden Hazard distracted them to the other end. The Belgian would not let it rest; he was obsessed with making headway and fast. The neck vibrated sideways, trying to keep up. Every sinew agile, the mind not as sharp.

But it did not hurt. Even as Neymar slashed like a cornered knight, Hazard was twisting the knife with dexterity. Enchanting the crowd with a balletic swish of his hips to leave defenders wrong-footed; not to mention, a drop of the shoulder which had them wallowing in cross-eyed confusion. Hazard moved past bodies like he was moving through them. If there were questions over his big-game temperament, Hazard tore the doubts apart much like he ravaged Brazil.

Fagner and Fernandinho were two victims caught in the direct firing line of Hazard’s extensive brilliance. Fernandinho would have preferred if his ordeal had been limited to the own goal he contributed from Belgium’s corner. But he and Fagner still had to endure the humiliation that Hazard’s razing movement had designed for them. He made the Brazilians yield space as if it were meant for him.

This was the Garden of Eden.

Unlike his usual role, Hazard was handed the freedom to roam, prance, and make misery for Brazil. He cut through the left flank, drifted toward the right, and lurked ominously in the centre. Spreading his intuitive ideas wide, in little time. Miss it and the next act of audacity is already in motion. One was moved to recall the words of 19th-century Russian poet Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, “To live, it hurries, and to feel, it hastes.” The pacey predilections of Hazard were causing FOMO.

He cut through the left flank, drifted toward the right, and lurked ominously in the centre. Spreading his intuitive ideas wide, in little time.

Eventually, even he could not keep up. Hazard ran nine kilometres – not unusual – but his legs suggested a lot more ground was covered. Sore, and worried that Brazil may draw level, the Chelsea star switched to savvier modes of destruction. With the clock winding down, Hazard hoodwinked Miranda into fouling him. A free-kick was earned and more precious seconds wasted. Hazard’s face betrayed his pleasure. He was so pleased with himself that you would think he had scored a goal.

No such joy for him on the night, of course, but the jubilation of victory swept over the usually taciturn footballer once the match finished. Hazard had run so much, and he could finally drop to his knees. Arms raised and fists clenched, the tiredness of the evening’s exertions a slight distraction from the gravity of Belgium’s achievement. In that moment, Hazard resembled his idol Ronaldinho the closest. Like the Brazilian legend, he thanked the heavens with a smile.

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If there were questions over his big-game temperament, Hazard tore the doubts apart much like he ravaged Brazil.

Image Credits: Getty Images

The austere tendencies of Hazard would allow no more. The showiness is limited to trickery on grass, which frustrates the journalist sitting next to me. As I type this, he is keen to learn an interesting anecdote about Hazard from a Belgian colleague. All he gets is a matter-of-fact reply, “He has a normal life. He has a wife, he does not go to many parties, there is nothing which I can tell you.”

Normal, they say. But if you have ever watched Hazard draw rings with his feet, you would say anything but. The World Cup has vaulted the Chelsea star to his best – racing past defenders without a hint of stumble, dribbling past them as if it was the easiest option. Even so, Hazard’s genius remains under-appreciated. No less because he allows himself the time to do odd jobs on the pitch. You are likely to see him running back to mark an opponent, snapping at ankles to win the ball, passing unselfishly to a teammate who can be more decisive.

Diligence toward professional duties does not easily lend to eulogy. But Hazard is a player hot-housed by modern coaching. His enthusiasm curbed, so that he can animate play better. Worryingly, his past year at Chelsea suggested that walls had surrounded his creativity with outlets being gradually snapped. With Belgium, though, Hazard is breathing freely again – his two goals and as many assists in the World Cup telling only a part of the story. The freedom is more obvious in his movement, his insistence to probe, his energy to chase lost causes.

The liberation of Eden has allowed us more time to pursue the pleasures of Hazard’s creation. He can ferry Belgium to uncharted waters while he oozes out more from the nectar of freedom. A World Cup win could elevate him to a higher realm as well, perhaps infecting Hazard with a sprightlier disposition. That may facilitate the revelation of strokes hitherto restrained. If so, the eyes will widen once again in amazement.

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